Israeli minister calls for talks with Syria

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The Independent Online

A senior Israeli minister suggested yesterday that, in the wake of its inconclusive war with Hizbollah, Israel should consider resuming peace negotiations with Syria.

Avi Dichter, the Internal Security Minister, told the army radio station that, in exchange for peace, Israel could return the strategic Golan Heights, conquered in the 1967 war. He noted that Israel had paid similar territorial prices for treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

"Any political process is preferable to a military-fighting process," Mr Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, said. "Syria is a very significant country."

Although Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, ruled out such negotiations unless Syria stopped sponsoring terrorist groups, the idea was already gaining purchase among his colleagues. Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister, has appointed a "project manager" to assess the prospects.

Amir Peretz, the Defence Minister, and Shimon Peres, the vice-premier, have also speculated about renewing contacts with Damascus, despite recent hostile statements by Syria's President, Bashar Assad. The aim would be to detach Syria from its central role in the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbollah axis before Iran acquires nuclear weapons. "Assad may be a bastard," an official was quoted as saying yesterday, "but it might be better to have him in our camp".

Boaz Ganor, a leading Israeli expert on counter-terrorism, urged the US to take the initiative. "It is a strategic goal for the Western world to see that Syria will not stay as a military ally of Iran. I think there is a chance of achieving this kind of goal. Iran and Syria have an artificial alliance."

Israel is smarting from its failure to stop Hizbollah's rocket attacks, or get back its two kidnapped soldiers. Residents of the border town Kiryat Shmona told Mr Olmert during a visit yesterday that they felt abandoned. "Where were you?" Yigal Buzaglo, a local councillor, asked him. "Why didn't you look after us?"

After retiring at the weekend as chief infantry officer, Brigadier-General Yossi Hyman said: "We all feel a sense of failure and missed opportunity. We committed the sin of arrogance."